Engaging The Youth in Governance

By Caren Wakoli

“ If you want to see the future of a nation, look to its youth,” Karekin Njteh, Armenian statesman and military strategist.

Why does the state of youth in Kenya remain dire despite numerous projects geared toward empowering them over the years? And as the majority of the Kenyan population, why are they at the periphery of policy and decision-making processes – even in decisions that directly impact them? 

It is simply because the various actors in the youth development space have not been keen and intentional about investing in strategic collaborations that will ensure sustainable positive change in the outcomes that directly touch on young people. 

Additionally, there is very little meaningful long-term investment in youth. What is the status of investing in access to quality education? Meaningful engagement and participation? Dignified and fulfilling employment? Quality and affordable healthcare? Access to justice and their emotional wellbeing? 

According to the 2019 Population and Census, 75% of the Kenyan population is below 35 years old. But, where are they? Do we see them? Do we ever genuinely listen to them? How often do we think about securing their future? Most importantly, how are we preparing them for the future that is ever so changing?

The challenges affecting youth are critical now more than ever. All stakeholders ought to unite and invest in sustainable youth development solutions. This is corroborated by a UNESCO funded study by the Nairobi Peace Initiative that sought to understand the condition and challenges of the Kenyan youth and provide insights on how to engage them in achieving sustainable development in Kenya. 

It recommended that to improve the state of the youth, stakeholders such as the state, private sector, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, development programme based organizations and donor agencies must become active participants in the process. 

Further, the World Bank report, Can Africa Claim the 21st Century, posits that Africa must invest in its people, especially the youth. Failure to which complaints about insecurity, unemployment, abuse, and misuse by politicians, drug abuse, and addiction, among other dilemmas will continue unabated. 

The UNDP projects that Africa’s youth population will double to 830 million by 2050. This bulge is a prospect that can support Africa’s growth in the 21st Century but to reap the dividends, governments must intentionally invest in the youth.

Causes of the status quo

There are many root causes to this state of affairs, but bad leadership, poor implementation of existing policies, and negative narratives about youth are most pronounced.

Like leadership expert John C. Maxwell puts it, everything rises and falls on leadership. Kenya and many African countries continue to change constitutions and hold elections regularly, but nothing much seems to change. However, real change only happens when and where there is a commitment to leadership as service. It is impossible to lead successfully without serving as selfless service is at the heart of leadership. 

The late Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai exemplifies a leader who championed sustainable development, not for personal interest but public interest. Her quest to see Kenya and the globe at large preserve the environment was unmatched. She never relented despite being fought by the government of the day. 

Her audacity in practice and belief in human dignity through planting trees and protecting the environment inspired generations to emulate her. With climate change emerging as a global priority issue, her voice is louder today than ever before. Her legacy lives on and gets stronger by the day. Now, this is leadership and an investment in future generations. 

On poor implementation of policies, many good policies exist. However, proper implementation is the problem. For instance, government initiatives like the 30% Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (AGPO) by youth, Uwezo Fund and Youth Enterprise Development Fund, among others, should be effectively monitored and evaluated periodically and adjusted to ensure effectiveness. This would lead to the actual tangible impact of such initiatives to the benefit of young people and the nation at large. 

In a 2017 report to UN Women, Assessing Access to Government Public Procurement Opportunities for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Prof. Tabitha Kiriti Ng’ang’a, observed that despite AGPO’s success stories, women, youth, and persons with disabilities still faced a myriad of challenges that limited their access and participation. 

These included corruption, limited access to information, stiff tendering requirements, lack of technical capacity to participate in the application process, and limited access to funding options. Prof. Ng’ang’a recommended improvements such as building the capacity of the target groups and democratizing access to information on such opportunities as being possible ways to improve the uptake of such opportunities. 

Lastly, on the negative narratives, the society perceives the youth as restless, wanting quick fixes, confused; less experienced and hence has little to offer. In a recent Afrobarometer report launched in August 2021, in which citizens of 33 African countries gave their views on #YouthVoices, “only 37 per cent of those polled indicated that society should listen to the wisdom of young people. The rest preferred listening to the wisdom of the elderly. 

However, all voices, ideas and aspirations matter. Youth are and can be responsible members of society, who when nurtured and engaged meaningfully can contribute to their holistic development and wellbeing. 

How then do we engage youth?

According to a 2019 research by the Emerging Leaders Foundation – Africa, the top three impediments to the prosperity of the Kenyan youth are unemployment, lack of mentorship and lack of access to information. These findings raise critical questions: how can we meaningfully invest in the youth? How do we re-imagine and re-engineer the state of young people in Kenya? 

Here are five propositions.

The first is to co-design programs with them. The statement, there is nothing for youth without youth, is valid. All key stakeholders in the youth empowerment space must pay attention to this. It is sad that most institutions perceive youth as mere beneficiaries and fail to see their creative power. 

This constituency knows what ails them and can reimagine and innovate effective and efficient solutions. . It is, therefore, critical to involve them in the whole process of designing solutions and then respectfully acknowledging them as key contributors to development and system change, as opposed to only inviting them to validate already designed ‘solutions.’ 

Secondly, the youth ought to be invited to the boardrooms where policy decisions are made and engaged in their preferred language. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

This engagement should involve genuinely listening to them and acting on their desires. Often, young people are dismissed as being confused, lost, impatient…however, they are sensible and know what they want, when they want it and how they want it. 

Thirdly, is to amplify their voices. Many youths are doing great work with great results in the community. Highlighting the stories and works of these unsung heroes on podcasts, websites, media, blogs, and other platforms increase their visibility and ability to be heard beyond their everyday spaces of engagement can be very beneficial to them. 

Additionally, financing their enterprises and/or opening important doors for them is even more beneficial. According to the World Bank, 40% of youth who join rebel movements are motivated by a lack of economic opportunities. Providing opportunities that dignify the lives of youth and enable an environment for them to showcase their skills, talents, and passions would make a big difference in sustaining and scaling up their potential. 

Fourthly, is the crucial role of mentoring and coaching. This support and empowerment are important in building competence and confidence, which, in turn, are linked to self-esteem and self-actualization. Evidence shows that mentoring and coaching youth is a very productive way of equipping the next generation of leaders to realize their full potential and make a difference in society. 

The gender gap in workplaces, leadership and boardrooms cannot be bridged by mere talk and tokenism. It takes work. It takes intentionality. It takes individuals, institutions, and government, put in place mechanisms to guide these youth and show them that it is possible to be individuals of integrity and still succeed. Supporting them to find the answers within, to the questions they seek, is a sure way of preparing youth to face the future and confront emerging issues of their times. 

Lastly, is to encourage peer learning in their diversities. Their diversity belies part of their strength. Their exposure and experiences serve as a great training ground for peer learning, understanding one another better and speaking up for one another. It is better to build their capacity to the extent that they become the trainers and teachers of fellow youth. Experiential learning through exchange programs, field trips and simulations are a great way of passing on practical knowledge to young people, young people and young people. 

Caren Wakoli is the Founder and Executive Director of Emerging Leaders Foundation – Africa

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